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Alumni Almanac

Asylum: Views from Both Sides of the Fence

Law alumni debate the efficacy and humaneness of tougher post-9/11 U.S. immigration laws.

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Taking a hard line on illegal immigration, a Republican-led Congress authorized the construction of a 700-mile-long fence between Arizona and Mexico last September. Six weeks later, moderator Nancy Morawetz ’81, professor of clinical law, asked those gathered at the Law Alumni Association’s annual lecture, “Immigration: Do Good Fences Actually Make Good Neighbors?” to consider the intangible barriers between the United States and those who want to live here. “We’re going to look beyond the literal fence at the border to the broader set of real and metaphorical fences that make up our immigration law,” she said.

After 9/11, rules on immigration became stricter, particularly affecting refugees seeking asylum. Around 80 refugees are granted asylum daily, according to statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cited by Patricia Buchanan, chief of the immigration unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Those rejected can go before immigration courts or appeals boards, making asylum “an area where we see checks and balances working in our system,” she said. F. Franklin Amanat, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York, whose jurisdiction includes JFK International Airport, agreed, saying that although legitimate asylum-seekers are at times turned away, those instances are few in number.

Others strongly debated that point. Judy Rabinovitz ’85, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, countered that since 1996, when the overhaul of immigration laws began allowing expedited removal procedures to be held at borders rather than in courts, low-level officers have had an authority disproportionate to their training to weigh asylum. This and other procedures that would be prohibited in law enforcement create an inherent unfairness in how refugees are treated, she said. For instance, she cites the fact that some asylum-seekers have been held in detention for years before seeing a courtroom. And then, they may even appear before immigration judges in shackles.

Abigail Price (LL.M. ’89), who is a global technical adviser for the prevention of exploitation and abuse at the International Rescue Committee, described how a mother and daughter from Sierra Leone—raped, enslaved and tortured in their home—endured a grueling wait at the border because they, under duress, housed local rebels. Their actions were initially categorized as providing material support to terrorists. Describing a central paradox of post-9/11 immigration law, she said, “This is a situation where the application of reasonable laws keeps out those who need it most.”

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